When I was a kid, Broadway musicals were a regular event in our household. Even when I was in college, we managed to squeeze in one or two when I was back in Connecticut on breaks. Nonetheless, it had been a few years.
Yesterday my parents drove in, picked up half-price tickets at the TKTS booth as is traditional, and wandered around for a few hours until I got off work. Then we went to see Newsies.
I knew nothing whatsoever about the show, apart from noticing the attached Disney logo. I have a lot of negative associations with Disney, both because of their watered-down, gender-role-obsessed corruptions of classic folktales and because of their hypocritical copyright maximalism. I’m also broadly unenthused by the idea of a Broadway production closely based on an existing Hollywood movie: too much money involved, and not enough room for originality.
The logo gave me a sour feeling about the show, which quickly sweetened as it got underway. This production of Newsies is performed by an (almost entirely male) cast of mostly dancers, in a style somewhere between ballet and gymnastics. I’ve never seen so many front flips in one place. The musical arrangements and performances were gorgeous, though none of the songs really stand out as obvious classics in the vein of “Seasons of Love” or “Defying Gravity”. As a performance, it was an excellent, standard-issue Broadway musical, with perhaps a little more emphasis on traditional production style (and less on showy high-tech staging) than the average. The performances convey pure, energized joy, more infectious than any other show I can recall.
The remarkable thing, at least to a Newsies-novice like me, is that the show is explicitly, flatly political. It tells the story of the newspaper-boys’ strike of 1899, and uniformly sides with the labor organizers and against the corporate titans. Whether the nascent union will survive is often supposedly in question; whether its cause is just is an article of faith. I’m used to mass-market entertainment erring on the side of unopinionated and unobjectionable (often sold as sophisticated ambiguity), so it was refreshing to see unabashed advocacy, of any kind.
Labor advocacy seemed especially remarkable to me. For starters, Disney has had its fair share of strikes and disputes, past and present. But the thing that really stuck out to me is that Broadway musicals are themselves union productions, thanks to the Equity actors’ guild and the Stagehands’ union.
Maybe that’s why the performers’ enthusiasm felt so genuine.